Prairie residents disagree on ATV use

OKEECHOBEE — Problems out on the Prairie are not new. In June 2017, the previous board of Coquina Water Control District (CWCD), the quasi-government agency for the Prairie, signed a five-year interlocal agreement with the sheriff of Okeechobee County to enforce traffic control in the district and to rid it of outsiders tearing up its roads, mostly with ATVs.

While some residents of the Prairie argue that property owners should be allowed to ride their all-terrain vehicles on the roads maintained by Coquina, others complain that some of the ATVs tear up the roads. This photo shows ruts and gouges in a sand road in the Prairie.

It was also to make the area safer in general, as there were a lot of parties, drinking and shooting going on. The Prairie is located in the northwestern corner of Okeechobee County, northwest of Bassinger, which puts it in the sheriff’s jurisdiction.

The trouble with the interlocal agreement is there are claims the old CWCD board signed the agreement without the permission of the landowners, and that during the meeting when it was signed, an agreement was reached wherein the landowners, the board and the sheriff would conduct a workshop and rework the interlocal agreement because the CWCD attorney did not like the wording of it; but once the landowners left the meeting, the board signed the agreement anyway without the landowners’ knowledge or permission.

According to James Griffith, co-chairman of the Prairie Landowners Steering Committee, more trouble started when, rather than cracking down on things like speeding, reckless driving, vandalizing roads or running four-way stops, the sheriff announced at an Okeechobee Board of County Commissioners meeting that he was shutting down all use of ATVs on the Prairie roads. Mr. Griffith said: “You don’t stop bank robberies by shutting down banks. It works, but it’s not right.”

Not everyone agrees with that sentiment, however. Gregg Maynard grew up out on the Prairie, also known as Viking Estates, and said it used to be a great place to live. It was a small community where everyone knew each other; mostly, it was families trying to make a home for themselves. They each minded their own business and stayed on their own property. They just wanted privacy and a little land to call their own.

Over the years, though, things began to change. New owners began coming in who were sold property with false assurances they had full use of the entire Viking Estates as their personal recreational playground, Mr. Maynard explained. He said these people were told the land was zoned for recreational use rather than residential and it became almost like the “Old West” out there with parties, people shooting guns, ATVs tearing up everyone’s property and people cutting down fences and trespassing on private land. He said people were injured and had to be life-flighted out. Finally they knew something had to be done, he explained, and the CWCD entered into the interlocal agreement with Sheriff Noel Stephen.

Deputy Bryan Holden, who has been accused by some of “bullying” tactics, is his friend, Mr. Maynard said. He added that he has never seen any sign of abuse by Deputy Holden.

Furthermore, he believes that Deputy Holden bends over backward to help people out there. Mr. Maynard said they have considered every possible idea for ways to let people ride ATVs, but the sheriff can’t tell who lives there and who doesn’t. It isn’t his job to be full-time security and ask for ID of everyone who comes and goes, and he says putting a sticker on ATVs won’t work because you can’t require people to buy a sticker.

Mr. Maynard said he doesn’t understand why people can’t just ride on their own land and stay off the roads. He says the deputies are not ticketing people on the grass roads, which are private property and belong to the landowners, but are ticketing them on the gravel roads, which belong to CWCD. He also stressed the problems go much deeper than just ATVs.

“Cars and houses have been hit by bullets. People buy property and just go tear up the roads on the weekend. We need the deputies out there,” he said. He also pointed out that if you make riding legal only for owners, you can’t stop those who are coming out there and destroying the Prairie from buying a lot just so they can ride.

Charles Corso, who also lives in the Viking Estates, expressed concerns with the way things are being handled by the OCSO. He said most of the people causing trouble with the ATVs do not live out there, and the residents have always enjoyed traveling back and forth to visit friends on ATVs, and they also used them when fighting wildfires. He claims the interlocal agreement was signed by only one person and that, before the agreement, they rarely saw a deputy out there. He says they are miserable now. They have come up with ideas to control the outsiders, but their ideas have all been shot down.

Mr. Corso says they aren’t asking for the right to get drunk and go out and party on their four-wheelers; they just want to be able to ride them responsibly on their own private roads if they choose to do so. He explained many of them live miles away from the place they have to dump their garbage. They used to be able to put the garbage in a trailer on the back of a four-wheeler and haul it down there. Now they must put it in their car. “Would you want to put your nasty garbage in your car?” he asked.

Most of them also live miles away from their mailboxes because mail trucks can’t travel down the gravel roads to deliver mail. They used to send the kids on the ATVs, but now they must drive their cars or walk miles to pick up the mail. “It’s just not right. People in town ride all over on their golf carts, and we live way out here in the country, and we can’t use our four-wheelers.”

This is a gravel road in the Prairie.

Mr. Corso also pointed out that Sheriff Stephen was recently seen driving his four-wheeler on a path, and he responded that he had the owner’s permission to ride on his private land.

Mr. Corso explains Coquina has given landowners permission to ride on its private land, too, yet they are ticketed over and over. “We moved out here to get away from the city and have some freedom. I am an old man with bad knees. Who am I hurting if I ride a four-wheeler down the dirt road to check my mail?”

One homeowner asked, “why could we ride before the interlocal agreement and not after?

The law didn’t change.”

Another said, “why can people ride golf carts to Winn Dixie and I can’t ride a four-wheeler to take out my trash?”

Kent Malinowski, co-chairman of the Prairie Landowners Steering Committee, said this is not just about ATVs. The landowners believe their private property rights are being trampled on.

They want their private land rights restored. They want safe and courteous riding by landowners only, and he states they have a working plan that came from a meeting with the sheriff and two commissioners in January. They want the county commissioners to recognize that as special district landowners, they have special control over their land and easements.

Mitchell Teardo, a landowner on the Prairie, thinks the private land rights of the property owners are being abused. He said deputies come on private property uninvited for no reason at all, and he wants the sheriff to know one of his deputies is nicknamed, “Bully with a badge.” He claims this deputy practices selective law enforcement.

Mr. Maynard says selective law enforcement would be exactly the opposite. The law in Florida says no ATVs on roads unless they are street-legal and licensed. He believes some people want to pick and choose what laws the sheriff should enforce, and he says: “That’s not right or fair to the sheriff. The community asked the sheriff to come in and enforce traffic laws, and now they are mad at him for enforcing traffic laws.”

There are always two sides to every story, and sometimes there are more than two.

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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